Heavy rains and rapid snowmelt caused rivers to swallow up bridges, swept entire sections of the road and forced more than 10,000 visitors to evacuate. The sudden closure has alarmed business owners and employees in surrounding communities who rely on visitors to Yellowstone as their main source of revenue.
The park said in a statement Tuesday that the park’s northern region, which bore the brunt of the flood damage, is expected to be closed for an “extended period of time” likely to last through the end of the season.
But while the reopening of the southern ring may provide relief for some in the tourism industry, those who border the northern entrance are still waiting.
In Gardiner, which serves as the gateway to the north entrance to Yellowstone, hoteliers are already feeling the effect.
“There’s no one here,” Keri Huising, owner of Yellowstone Gateway Inn, told CNN. “We were well booked for a year.”
Now, she said, all her visitors have left after the floods, and a nearby hotel has closed completely and sent its staff home.
“It’s Yellowstone, and it lives and dies because of tourism,” Park County Commissioner Bill Berg said of Gardiner.
The Casper Star Tribune reports that tourism industry workers in Cody, which is east of the park, were excited to get answers from Chulli about reopening the South Ring. Shuli hopes that the gateway communities and park staff can decide how to maintain local businesses without attracting more visitors than the park can host, the paper reported.
Serious flooding fueled by torrential rain and thaw began to flood the park and many nearby communities on Monday, bypassing essential roads and bridges, and making the evacuation of some people dangerous or impossible.
As some communities became completely surrounded by water, and at times electricity or drinking water was cut off, search and rescue teams worked to evacuate residents. Since Monday, the Montana National Guard has conducted 87 helicopter rescues, according to a post on his Facebook account.
The park is temporarily closed as locals try to recover
The floodwaters wiped out entire sections of the paved road near the northern entrance, downed trees and caused multiple mudslides.
Communities around Yellowstone are also suffering catastrophic damage. The rapid movement of water breached many roads and bridges, sunk cars, and even swept away homes where the foundations were completely eroded.
In Montana’s Park County, which includes Gardiner, at least two homes collapsed into the swollen river and several homes and businesses were inundated, Greg Coleman, the county’s director of disaster emergency services, told CNN. Gardiner was completely cut off by water from Monday through Tuesday as flooding rendered roads and bridges impassable.
Aerial video of the damage captured by CNN shows a home in Montana suspended precariously on the edge of a severely eroded levee. Images of the aftermath of events in Red Lodge, Montana, on Tuesday showed several streets crammed with stones and debris while water still flowed over the sidewalks.
The area is preparing for the possibility of more flooding
Record flooding was caused by a combination of heavy rain and thaw from higher elevations over the weekend in the Berthoth and Apsaruca mountain ranges, which span the Montana-Wyoming state line.
The level of runoff is comparable to an area that receives two to three times the normal June precipitation rate in just three days, according to CNN meteorologists.
The floods continued to move eastward on Wednesday along the Yellowstone River, leading to reports of significant flooding in Billings, which is about 175 miles drive east of Gardiner. By Tuesday afternoon, the river had risen significantly above the previous record of 15 feet, according to the National Weather Service.
The flooding prompted city officials to shut down the city’s water plant late Tuesday night, according to a post on the Billings City of Public Works Facebook account.
“These record levels make the event a 500-year flood,” Postal officials said.
But even as water levels begin to recede in areas on Tuesday and Wednesday, park officials and local residents are preparing for the possibility of more flooding in the coming days.
The NWS predicts that “the main forecast concerns are related to high temperatures on Friday and Saturday. Then focus will shift to chances of rain and thunderstorms with some rivers rising as the snow melts at higher elevations.”
Billings will approach record highs in the high 90s on Friday and Saturday, while higher highs will be in the 60s and 70s. Temperatures will be warm enough to melt the remaining ice masses and cause rivers to rise further over the weekend, according to CNN meteorologist Judson Jones. Then he said more rain, and possibly even severe storms, was expected for Sunday.
Already the climate crisis is driving more annual precipitation and runoff from melting ice masses in the greater Yellowstone region, and this trend will continue in the coming years, the report said.
Nick Watt, Julia Jones, Sarah Smart, Megan Vasquez, Paradise Afshar, Claudia Dominguez, Judson Jones and CNN’s Rachel Ramirez contributed to this report.